Greetings from your loved ones in Vietnam! After 36 hours of long travel, we have finally arrived, but before we can share all of our Vietnamese stories let’s recap the past two weeks in Washington D.C.
As soon as the launch finished on Sunday August 14, we were shipped off to the Wellspring Retreat Center for orientation and other group bonding activities. It was isolated and beautiful and we all went a little stir crazy spending 9 hours a day in this one room, which was gorgeous. We ate amazing food and got to know one another. Then, after three days of the woods, we were shuttled back to the country capital for more fun and learning. We stayed at Hostelling International and it was fantastic! The hostel was in a great location—within walking distance to several amazing D.C. attractions—and hosted people from all over the world. We spent our limited free time exploring the National Mall and Smithsonian museums. Of course, we were also able to go to places to have fun such as Georgetown for shopping and paddle boarding, the National Zoo for panda watching, and so much more. It feels like two weeks was not enough time to explore D.C. but we all certainly tried to do our best.
Coming from all over the country, we each entered the program with prior knowledge about our domestic health systems and the economy, the environment and shelter; yet as these two weeks passed, our team was exposed to alternative visions of this country we call home. The majority of the group was not looking forward to spending two weeks in Washington, D.C., because we signed up to travel the world for four months. Some of us knew more about the horrors surrounding poor communities in other countries–like lack of access to clean water and fresh produce—than we did about the issues that prevail in American culture. Through guest lectures, classes, site visits, and case studies, we learned a ton about the issues plaguing the United States.
A guest lecturer spoke to us about the Affordable Care Act at the start of the second week, which helped us gain a more nuanced understanding of health care in the U.S. and what coverage actually looks like within our own borders. We’ve also spent time in La Clínca del Pueblo, a clinic providing treatment for the large Spanish-speaking population in Washington D.C., and learned about language as a barrier to care. While familiar with other determinants for health outcomes in the U.S., such as socio-economic status and race, many of us had given little thought in the past about the effect of language and immigration status.
Additionally, in our neighborhood walks across the city, we examined the complexities involved in development in the city. While development has increased available services in some areas, it has also shut lower-income groups out of their homes. Other groups observed the effect of construction pollution on the population within them city. Entering the program with preconceived ideas about health in the United States, We’ve left with a fuller picture, one that suggests a long road of progress ahead.
In the classroom, we learned about divisions between wards in D.C. with the quality of education, prevalence of food stores and health clinics, the burden of chronic illness, and the cost of transportation varying greatly among wealthy and poor neighbors. We specifically learned about ward 7 and 8 that are separated from the rest of Washington D.C. by the Potomac River. There are food deserts and a dearth of funding for public schools in these low income areas. This type of inequality was also evident among immigrant populations residing in other neighborhoods in the city that are at risk for poor health due to their immigration status or lack of access to health care.
The stimulating lectures and discussions we had during class, in combination with the site visits and guest lectures that helped us understand the many shapes and forms public health can take on the ground, have all broadened our thinking. Because we all come from a unique community in the United States—ranging from Los Angeles to Kentucky to Chicago to Lima, Peru—our conversations capture a diversity of perspectives. Because we study a diverse range of subjects in our home universities—ranging from Public Health to Economics to Environmental Studies to Gender and Sexuality—we provide a manifold set of specialized knowledge. Together we are challenging and expanding upon the lenses through which we each view society and public health. We are challenging each other to practice empathy in order to better understand the mechanisms behind health inequities.
One of the biggest issues the group had was dealing with all of the oppression we were witnessing and feeling like there was nothing to do to help that was productive and selfless. We had a lot of discussions about this topic, and did not come to a unified solution. We predict that this will be a problem that we will question throughout the trip. Additionally, a lot of people in the group struggled with the structured environment and long hours that IHP requires. After spending the past two years studying and planning our lives independently, it was difficult to have to adhere to a schedule and rules that someone else made for us. Finding time to be alone and be independent was challenging. People made adjustments by taking time to exercise or spending time alone to counter all of the exhaustion from the long days.
We are still learning how to cope with our packed schedules here in Hanoi, and being jetlagged doesn’t help! However, we are all enthusiastic and grateful for the unique learning opportunities we have scheduled for us throughout our stay here in Vietnam. Those two weeks in D.C. has brought us together as a group and as a family, and along with our incredible traveling faculty, we are supporting each other throughout this whirlwind of an experience.